Today in 1875, Phineas T. Barnum was elected Mayor of Bridgeport at the age of 64. Already nationally famous as a showman of the first order, his mayoral tenure was merely one of many accolades and successes for the man who would become one of America’s most famous entertainers, entrepreneurs, authors, and philanthropists.
P. T. Barnum had opened his first permanent attraction in New York City in 1841, 31 years before his mayoral bid. His American Museum boasted of oddities and curiosities of dubious veracity, from a working model of Niagara Falls to the alleged remains of a “Feejee mermaid,” and became a wildly popular attraction that propelled the Connecticut native to international fame. Despite his reputation as a peddler of “humbugs” in his museums and traveling shows, Barnum was an earnest believer in the traditional morals and strict economic reforms championed by the Temperance movement of the late 19th century. He was also passionate about obtaining full citizenship for black Americans as outlined in the Fourteenth Amendment, and ran successfully as a Republican candidate for the Connecticut state legislature in 1866. After having served for four years, and having lost a bid for a US Congressional seat to his third cousin William Barnum, P.T. Barnum then ran for mayor of Bridgeport on a reform agenda in 1875 and won. His platform, as summarized by the Connecticut newspaper The Daily Constitution, included the following:
Among his recommendations are, that the city pursue a liberal policy toward trade and manufacture; improve its streets and parks as far as consistent with a wise economy; enforce the laws for the restriction of the sale of liquor… to increase the efficiency of the water works… and closing with good advice to the effect that “While we should by no means unreasonably restrict healthy recreation, we should remember that ‘time is money,’ that idleness leads to immoral habits, and that the peace, prosperity, and character of a city depend on the intelligence, integrity, and frugality of its inhabitants.”
After his brief mayoral stint, Barnum once again turned his full attention toward producing entertainment for the masses. In 1881, he merged his own “Greatest show on Earth” traveling show with James Bailey’s circus, creating “Barnum & Bailey’s Circus,” which ran continuously until closing in 2017. For the remainder of his life, P. T. Barnum remained Bridgeport’s most famous and philanthropic citizen and continued to invest in his adopted hometown, donating land to create the city’s Seaside Park and was one of the founders of Bridgeport Hospital. The city erected a monument to Barnum in Seaside Park after his death in 1891, and his “Institute for Science and History” brownstone building in downtown Bridgeport — completed after his death in 1893 and pictured at left — is now open to the public as the Barnum Museum.
P.T. Barnum, Life of P. T. Barnum, Written By Himself, Including His Golden Rules for Money-Making, Brought Up to 1888. (Full book available via Google Books.)
Gregg Mangan, “P. T. Barnum: An Entertaining Life,” connecticuthistory.org
“About P. T. Barnum,” The Barnum Museum